Over the last 20 years I’ve owned about 40 synths (that I can remember). 13 were bought new and the rest were used. Most of them purchased in the last 7-8 years due to improved financial circumstances (like most people I make more money in my 30s than I did in my 20s).
My current collection consists of three synths all bought in the last 4 months. For me, that’s a long time. Actually, when I think about, I probably haven’t owned any of the 40 synths for longer than that. Not even 15 % of these synths ever made it into a song.
And those 15 % only made it into one production. Given the number of synths that constantly get shipped to and from my house, the neighbors probably think we’re running a music store. Not to mention all the effect pedals and guitars that come and go.
This behavior has extended beyond music as well: I also have a history of collecting vintage luxury watches. An endless series of chasing the next “thing”, the one that will cure my restlessness.
The ’10-Step’ Vicious Cycle
If you ask my family members, I have a problem. Maybe I do. I am clearly chasing something that I don’t seem to catch. As a licensed psychologist, I know very well that the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is one.
When I think of all the synths (and watches, effect pedals, guitars…) I’ve owned, and the fact none of the made me happy for more than a day (or less), it becomes obvious that it definitely is a problem. I have identified a pattern that keeps repeating, and it goes something like this:
Start to get feelings of restlessness, boredom or unease. Usually all three.
Browse the web for something “new” to cure my negative feelings.
Identify a product that gets me excited.
Spend a lot of time researching product reviews, watch YouTube videos of “synthfluencers” raving on about the awesomeness of the particular product. I somehow always fail to see that these reviews might be biased. (I’m also very successful at neglecting all negative comments.)
Get even more excited. This clearly is the synth that will forever cure my need for something new. I fool myself into thinking it will probably revolutionize my entire way of making music.
Start browsing music forums and shops, trying to find what I’m looking for at a good price.
Next comes the tricky part: Waiting for the product to get shipped to me. This is the most painful bit, as my main weakness (I’m sure there are many) is my lack of patience. I have been known to buy from a more expensive shop if they have faster shipping. At the same time this is a period of excitement, of feeling like a problem has been solved. Coming my way is a spectacular piece of gear that will transform my music completely.
The product arrives, and I race off to the local post office to retrieve it. I actually have more vivid and lucid memories of going to the post office picking stuff up, than of actually using the stuff
I come home, plug it in… and get disappointed. Somehow nothing changed: I’m still restless, I struggle with my music, and most of the time I have a hard time fitting the gear into my creative process. All it did was make things complicated. Feelings of remorse overcome me.
Back to step 1… the cycle continues.
In the 2016 article “Buying to Blunt Negative Feelings: Materialistic Escape From the Self” the authors write that purchasing goods often fails to transform us or our lives in the way we would like. This makes the purchase feel like yet another failure. This negative feeling is chased away by going after yet another purchase (Donnelly et al., 2016).
Foolishly, we try to solve the problem in the same way we got to it in the first place: by buying stuff. It creates a vicious cycle of consumption, fueled by advertising and influencers that always convinces us we need something new, something else.
The Reward System
So why is it so hard to stop this vicious cycle which clearly isn’t working for us? It might be down to how our brain’s reward system is wired. The activity in these regions is modulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine.
The purpose of the reward system is to help us remember pleasant experiences and make sure we seek them out again in the future. This is crucial for survival, as it makes sure we eat, drink and reproduce.
The reward system can, however, be activated by other activities like gambling, drugs etc, as long as they feel pleasant to us (Arias-Carrión, Stamelou, Murillo-Rodríguez, Menéndez-González, & Pöppel, 2010).
So the reward system plays a key role in establishing behavioral patterns that make sure we seek out pleasant experiences again and again. This means we survive, as individuals and as human race.
The problem with gambling and drugs are the negative long-term effects they might have on our life.
But the reward system is activated by the “here-and-now” and does not care for long-term problems.
So the joy of buying something new can activate the reward system, and establish a neural link between feeling bad and consumption.
In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a shopping addiction. The British NHS (National Health Service) defines addiction as “not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.” (NHS website, 2018).
Clearly this can apply to shopping if it leads to potential harm. Shopaholics Anonymous lists several possible reasons for retail addiction:
Grief/loss (to fill a void)
Depression (to get a lift)
Boredom (to feel excitement)
Stress, anxiety (to comfort)
Acceptance from others (to feel included, fit in)
So over-shopping can be viewed as a problem-solving strategy that gives short-term comfort, but never really solves anything in the long run.
Gear Acquisition Syndrome
“But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas…”
(The Rolling Stones – Jumpin’ Jack Flash)
In recent times, the term Gear Acquisition Syndrome (simply abbreviated as GAS) has become popular for describing this concept.
GAS is the tendency to “purchase more equipment than justified by usage and/or price”. A quick search for the term “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” leads to books and articles about anything from astronomy to music production. Clearly this is something affecting people of many different hobbies and occupations.
Maybe the concept of GAS seems less pathological than shopping addiction, and therefore easier to accept? To me, GAS also seem to have less emphasis on the “harmful” part, which would separate it from shopping addiction.
Breaking The Chain
So we’ve seen that over-shopping, regardless of the level of harm it creates, is a problem solving strategy that works well in the short term, but never actually solves the problem in the long run. If you’re like me, stuck in a cycle of purchases that never really satisfy, what can you do?
Map your purchase pattern. Identify your specific vicious cycle, as detailed as possible. Is there a common theme as to how it all starts? What are the triggers? What happens next, and how does it all end?
Avoid the triggers. Is your restlessness sending you to YouTube, where you watch all the latest gear reviews and news? Browse in private mode or start subscribing to channels that influence you in more positive ways.
Start with the problem. Ask yourself what problem you are solving buy making the purchase. Will the product actually aid you in your music production, or is it a solution for something else? For me, a sure sign that I’m about to fool myself into a bad purchase, is that it starts with the product and not the problem. Lusting for gear first and rationalizing after is a clear indication of an unnecessary purchase. If, however, you have first identified a problem, this makes a purchase necessary and the situation might be different.
Buy used. By purchasing used products, you can at least avoid the financial loss that’s usually a part of buying new and reselling it.
For my closing remarks, I’d like to just say this:
And for those interested, here’s a list of all the synths that have momentarily “cured” my restlessness over the years. Some I’ve even bought more than once, hence the (x2).
Access Virus A
Arturia Microbrute (x2)
Arturia Minibrute 2S (x2)
Behringer Model D (x2)
Behringer Neutron (x2)
Behringer Deepmind 12D
Clavia Nord Rack 1
Clavia Nord Modular G1
DSI Prophet Rev 2
Prophet 08 Desktop
Elektron Analog 4 (x2)
Elektron Analog Rytm
Elektron Model Cycles (x2)
Elektron Digitakt Elektron
Digitone Korg M1
Korg Minilogue XD
Korg Volca Drum
Korg Volca Keys
Korg Volca Bass
Korg Volca Beats
Moog Minitaur Moog
Novation Bass Station
Novation Bass Station 2
Novation Peak Roland SE-02 (x2)
Sequential Circuits Pro One
Waldorf Blofeld Desktop
Arias-Carrión, O., Stamelou, M., Murillo-Rodríguez, E., Menéndez-González, M., & Pöppel, E. (2010). “Dopaminergic reward system: a short integrative review”, International Archives of Medicine, 3(1), 24. doi: 10.1186/1755-7682-3-24
Donnelly, Grant & Ksendzova, Masha & Howell, Ryan & Vohs, Kathleen & Baumeister, Roy. (2016). “Buying to Blunt Negative Feelings: Materialistic Escape From the Self”, Review of General Psychology. 20. 272-316. 10.1037/gpr0000078.
National Health Service website, (2018), “Addiction: what is it?” (Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/live- well/healthy-body/addiction-what-is-it/)